Monday, November 29, 2010

The Huswife's Home Pharmacopea: Mullein

A few years ago I had the worst cold I’ve ever had in my life.  It might have been pnumonia but I was at a conference at an isolated resort and I never went to the doctor to find out.  My airways were severely constricted and when I coughed I wheezed like a newly landed fish. 

Fortunately, the resort spa sold tincture of mullein and it got me through the conference.  My airways opened up, coughing diminished, and all without that weird spacey feeling from  commercial decongestants. By the time I went home I was on the mend and comnpletely sold on mullein.  Since then I’ve kept it stocked in my medicine cabinet.  

A few years ago I was in Colorado and noticed it growing along the sides of the road.  I stopped and took a few stalks of seeds home and scattered them in a field, hoping to grow my own.  No luck.  Then I saw it in my brother-in-law’s yard in West Texas, took some seed home, and tried again.  Still no luck.  Fast forward six months:  I spot mullein growing along a road near my dad’s farm.  I took some seed home, scratched the earth, planted, watered, and watched.  No go.  I seemed cursed to buy tincture of mullein forever.  Six more months pass and what do I find growing along a small road near my house?  Right.  Mullein.  And lots of it.  It seems I can't make it grow where I will but it will grow where it wills. It just doesn't like the field where I was trying to grow it.  Around here, it prefers semi-shady, semi-cool, bottom land and thin, chalky soil, I think.  

So for now, I'll gather from the wild with a light hand and also try to find a spot on my land that's low and cool and chalky to scatter a little seed.  Because I definitely always, always want to have some on hand.  And I think you should too.

Uses:  Excellent for colds, coughs and any respiratory illness.  Honest, mullein is far superior to any over- the-counter or prescription cold medicine I've ever tried.  It is reputed to be good for skin rashes although I've no experience with this use.

Harvesting:  Leaves are the most practical part of the plant to harvest.  The flowers are useful as well, but they are tiny and must be harvested as they open.  Some folks also harvest the long taproot, but I never have.

To use:  Easiest is to make a tea from the leaves, either fresh or dried.  Be sure and strain the tea.  The leaves have little hairs that can tickle the throat if you ingest.  You can also make an alcohol-based tincture. 

If, like me, you don't have an immediate source for the plant,  you can buy the prepared tincture from most health food stores and Whole Foods.  I've also bought the dried leaves at our local farmer's market.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lost and Found

Discovered in the process of mowing my overgrown field:  favorite hat and gardening gloves.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Garden Wants to Kill Me

The biggest problem in the garden? The garden is a patch of about half an acre in the middle of a fenced acre of thick native thatch populated by the most hostile, pain-inducing stickers. The stickers are broken up by occasional cacti, fire ant mounds and needle-thorned mesquite.  Even when I was working on it regularly, stickers were a constant battle.  I had to wear heavy boots, gloves, and layers of denim.  I did my best to mow around the cultivated patch and create a kind of demilitarized zone, but the incursions from hostile plant life were frequent and unrelenting.

Now after six months of neglect, the garden has returned to its natural state of hostility to human flesh.  My puny little mower stalls out every few feet.  And with the children now, I don't have long stretches of time to devote to two-feet-at-a-time mowing. What's more, I can't take the kids with me to the garden because there are two many things out there that want to pierce tender young hides.

So what to do?  Do I buy a more powerful mower?  Hire someone with a tractor to plow the whole acre under and plant more flesh-friendly ground cover?  Give the project up as a folly?  I'm open to ideas.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Volunteer Squash

About fifteen volunteer squash, of unknown provenance, have sprung up in last year's compost pile.  They look like watermelon and spaghetti squash plants, and may well be some Frankensteinian cross.  Squash are notorious for cross-pollinating with gourds, which is why I've yet to plant gourds.  Time will tell if the fruits of these plants are any good to eat.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Drought Tolerant Vegetable Garden

I've learned a little bit about drought tolerant gardening in the last few years.  We had a record two year drought and we also lost access to a well for a brief period of time.  This year, I planted an area of the garden for which I've not yet built a drip system, so I have to water with a garden hose, by hand.  Pretty time consuming, so I planted some really drought tolerant veggies:  hot peppers, calabacita, tomatillos, and zucchini.  I drip the garden hose on one plant at a time, near the base, while I go about other garden chores.  This means that each plant gets a deep watering about every 7-10 days.  So far, we've had enough rains that this has been enough.  As the season progresses, I hope to find time to add a drip system.  But in the meanwhile, the plants are doing great, and producing like mad.  Besides choosing drought tolerant varieties, there are a few other things to do to grow plants with less water:

1. add berms to the garden, to catch and hold rainwater run-off.

2.  study the topography of your garden so that you can lay out beds in a more or less perpendicular manner to run-off patterns.

3.  amend soil with lots of rich organic matter.  I used home made compost and purchased composted turkey manure.

4.  space plants widely, more widely than seems sensible, so that they can really stretch out their toes and have access to lots of water and nutrients.

5.  mulch heavily.  I meant to mulch, and I really should have, but I haven't had a chance.  Poor plants are probably struggling more than they have to as a result.

6. Take advantage of natural clay soils, if you have them.  Our garden has a large patch of heavy clay gumbo soil, and this is where I have my drought tolerant veggies.  Everyone says you can't grow veggies in gumbo soil, but I've found that if I amend with organic matter, it works beautifully.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Something's Lurking Among the Tomatoes

About a week ago these creatures starting showing up on my tomato plants.  They're just sitting on the leaves and there are perhaps five or six per plants.  They look like some kind of multi-lobed egg sac or larvae, about the size of a thumbnail.

Normally, I don't do much about insect invasions -- I just wait them out and nature usually rebalances everything in a reasonable period of time.  Sometimes crops do take a beating but generally, nature just takes her ten percent tithe.

But there's something kind of ominous-looking about these things.  I've never seen them before and suddenly they appear in startling numbers.  So I've been peering at them and trying to decide if I should try to remove them.  Who are you, creature?  Friend or foe?

Everything I Know about Planting Onions

I don't really understand onions and their life cycle.  I really don't.  I only know five things:

1) plant when it's cool, well before the heat of summer takes over.  I planted these last February.

2) plant shallow.  In fact, I usually plant so shallowly that I have to really pinch the dirt up around the seedlings to get them to stay up. This seems like the main thing to get big, healthy onions.

3) harvest when the bulbs push their shoulders up out of the dirt.

4) cure the onions for a good while in the sun.  I'll cure these for about a week.

5) store in a cool, dry place with good air flow.  I break this rule a bit because I don't have such a place to store them.  I put them in a basket in my pantry, which is cool and dry but without much airflow.  But we eat them so quickly, and we have two growing seasons, so we've not had any spoil yet.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Day's Harvest from a Neglected Garden

 Sometimes nature is generous.  This summer so far, more rain than usual, no freak hail storms, tornadoes, or sirocco-like hot winds.  So, this poor neglected garden carries on, and sends veggies our way.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Squash versus the Squash Vine Borer

In our neck of the woods, the squash vine borer is endemic, fast, and lethal.  No method, whether natural or napalm,  can withstand the borer if he wants your squash.  Many experienced gardeners have given up on certain varieties of squash altogether. 

For some reason, the borer hasn't found my garden yet so I'm growing squash like mad while I can. What kind of squash is in the garden this year? Butternut, yellow, calabacita, and yellow zucchini, spaghetti, in that order.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Perennial Artichokes

Pity my severely neglected garden.  Between Dad's illness and two new kids, I've barely paid it any attention. I planted about half of the things I intended to plant; everything has been planted a little bit late; weeds have taken over most of the beds; watering has been sporadic.

Fortunately, the weather has been just a about perfect this spring and summer -- lots of rain, sunny, no cruel heat waves just yet.  And our soil is in great shape from several years of turkey manure amendments and mountains of compost.  Best of all, the permaculture beds are pretty much taking care of themselves.  So far, I've found a few plants that are either more or less perennial or reliably reseed themselves in our climate:  cilantro, basil, kale, leeks, chard, and several lettuces.  It doesn't sound like much but add a few easy-to-grow varieties of squash, tomatoes, peppers, and such, and we've had a more than adequate harvest this summer, with hardly any attention to the garden.

It's only recently that I realized artichokes would love our climate.  And they do love it!  We had a couple of hard freezes last year that I thought had killed them off.  But the original two plants came right back, more vigorous than ever.  And those that I let go to seed sent their babies to the original bed and all over the surrounding field.  Where once we two artichokes are now about fifteen healthy plants.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Life versus Blogging

Life has been richly complicated since I last posted anything at all.  My dad got sick and had to come live with us for a while.  It was serious; he was tough and determined to get better; he got a lot better and went to live with my brother and sister-in-law.

And then....

We adopted two children.

So life is richly, richly complicated and I haven't made time to blog.

In the meanwhile, the wildflowers decided to have their best season in years.  We had a Bluebonnet explosion to welcome the children.

Welcome to central Texas, babies!  We hope you like it here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Two Kinds of Texas Winter

These photos are from Christmas, which we spent with family in West Texas. It was beautiful in its own rugged, spare way.

  And this is what we came home to, in Central Texas. It was cold. In the forties and fifties. But we still had not had our first really hard freeze. We've had several hard freezes since then and the grass has gone brown. In fact, we've had some record freezes and lost plants and trees that had been surviving our winters for a some five years or more with no problems. It's just part of the cyclical nature of our weather here. This summer I'll chance it again, probably, and plant some marginal things -- subtropicals that will grow for five or ten years, or longer if I baby them, and if luck and nature don't take me by surprise.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Making Sauce From Frozen Tomatoes

Last summer I just plain could not keep up with the tomato canning and ended up doing something that frankly, made me shudder. I froze some tomatoes. I'd read that a lot of people do that when they run out of time. I never really trusted that frozen tomatoes would be any good, and so ended up buying some store bought tomatoes when my own canned ran out two months ago. Of course store bought tomatoes in winter are pretty sad things as well.

So here I am in February, finally using those frozen tomatoes. It turns out they're just fine. They work almost as well as home canned and are about a thousand times better than anything that can be bought out of season. I did fire roast about half of the tomatoes before I froze them and those are actually quite excellent. The other were frozen whole or quartered, without roasting or even blanching. Now I'm glad I didn't bother with blanching. Freezing serves the same purpose, which is to allow the skins to slip off.

I did remove the skins for the first few batches of sauce. Then I thought, why be so picky? You ate store bought tomatoes and didn't die. Surely you can eat the skins from your own homegrown, albeit previously frozen tomatoes. A Vitamix, or some other high speed blender, is key, I suspect, to the success of this venture. You can even blend the tomatoes without defrosting them first. You'll end up with a thick, chilly, bright pink tomato puree that can be cooked into any sauce at all, and those skins don't have to end up in the compost pile. Plus, you save the entire five seconds it would have taken to remove the skins from the tomatoes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Planning the Tomato Crop

I can't think of any crop that's more important for happiness than home-grown tomatoes. They are one of the veggies that, in my opinion, money can't buy.

Last year I planted tomatoes three times. The first batch was killed by a surprise hail storm, the second by a series of late season freezes that even a couple of makeshift hoop houses couldn't withstand. The last batch made it through most of the season until we lost our agricultural water in July. Still, we ended up with enough tomatoes to supply our household for about 3/4 of the year. I say 3/4 but that's a guess. I still have some tomatoes in the freezer, and one jar in the cupboard as well, because I was so stingy with them throughout the year. Also, I bought fresh tomatoes from the store from time to time.

This year I want to go all the way. I want to grow enough to keep us up to our necks in preserved tomatoes for the entire year. And have enough to share. And enough green ones at the end of the season to store and use as they ripen. I'm not sure exactly how to calculate this amount except to well, just guess, and double the number of plants. I do know one thing. I'm going to keep better records this year, and actually measure output by variety if I can.

I'd love to hear how others plan their tomato crops.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Toad For Breakfast

Here's a happy collection: A few slices of leftover no-knead homemade bread; some fresh eggs from a friend's backyard chickens; butter I made several months ago, from local raw cream, and that had been hiding in a corner of the freezer. Quite naturally on a Sunday morning, my thoughts turned to toad-in-a-hole. Making it is simple. Use a biscuit or cookie cutter to make a hole in the middle of a piece of bread. Melt butter in a frying pan. Add eggs, cook, flip, cook some more. The best part is the little rim where the eggs meet the bread. And in my neck of the woods we eat this homemade salsa.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Using It Up

One of the prompts for Frugal February was a post I read somewhere, sometime, about the huge waste that is most people's experience with buying a chest freezer. That is, most folks fill it up, thinking they're being careful and frugal and all in all good planetary citizens. Then they lose track of what's the deep recesses of said freezer until too late -- all this fine food gets tossed away.

Last summer I canned and dehydrated and froze fruits and veggies from my garden. I purchased a quarter of beef from the finest grass feeding ranchers in the state, not to mention some similarly fine pork. I bought bulk grains, oils, and spices through my native nutrition community buying group. It was all in service of creating a functioning home economia, and the hope was that we would have the best foods, as local as possible, as organic as possible, bought and preserved or used in season. And I would get it all at the best price. Moreover, I hoped we would be less subject to the vagaries of a crazy economy and possible disruptions in food supply (whether from natural disaster, ordinary weather patterns, zombie invasion, or whatever).

But somewhere along the way I did a poor job of measuring. I think I simply stockpiled too much. I did not quite realize how much could be grown on a fraction of an acre in my climate, given good soil and lots of labor on my part. So I still have quarts and gallons and more quarts of frozen and canned fruits and veggies in store. Too much jam and jelly. Excessive amounts of beef. And there are other things that I've run out of all year long, things I've had to buy lower quality versions of because I didn't produce enough. So in the month of February, as I go through our cupboards and freezers, I hope to measure, plan, and reevaluate for the coming year.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Frugal February

I really should have made this post on February 1 but what's new about me running behind on every single thing in my life? February has always been a funny month for me, and for central Texas also. It's really the end of our short winter and I think it catches a lot of folks by surprise. We're worn out from Christmas, January just flew by. It's cold and gray; it's wet; it's icy; from time to time it's cold, wet, grey, and icy all at the same time. Just the perfect time to let myself slip into a funk of guilt and self-recrimination. Why did I spend so much at Christmas? How could I have eaten all that? Why is the house so cluttered? More generally it's also a time when central Texans actually start complaining about things like rain and cool weather. I mean, really, these are things we cry and gasp for in the dog days of summer and now we complain about them. Such ungrateful behavior and yet another reason to slip into a pattern of guilt and self-recrimination.

Last February I managed these gray days by declaring Frugal February and I'm doing it again this year. It seems like a good month to use up the stores I have on hand, to boycott shopping, to reset my spending patterns -- kind of like the way Ayurveda has you go on a fast to reset your taste buds to purer foods and rest the digestive system. Only I can promise, I shall not be going on a fast. Here are the contours of Frugal February: no shopping at all for the entire month. That's it.

OK, that's not quite it. An exception has been made, and I won't say who in my household has made this exception, except to say it wasn't me. Bananas will continue to be purchased during Frugal February.

But other than that exception, no shopping. Believe me, this will not be onerous. I keep such a huge store of emergency foods here that I suspect we could go six months without buying groceries. And as for non-food shopping like clothes, we could go far longer yet. What I hope to accomplish is to just rest my system, enjoy the freedom of bowing out of the spend/consume cycles for a while, and take stock of what we have. I hope to discover how well we're planned out little home oeconomia here. We'll see how well the winter greens and herbs from the garden hold out, and use up the last of my canned, frozen, and dehydrated garden foods from last summer. We'll see if monotony sets in. As I recall from last year, I came away feeling very refreshed and ready for the fine, fine spring ahead.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Jig's Up, Spaghetti Squash

I first encountered spaghetti squash when a friend of mine was doing Weight Watchers, in the 90's, when the low fat craze was in full swing. She cut the poor squash in half, microwaved it, shredded its innards with a fork, and then served it with fat free marinara sauce from a jar. Is it any wonder I've had a hard time loving spaghetti squash?

But it turns out there is much to love about this squash. It's easy to grow, drought and insect tolerant, and most of all, stores forever on a counter top. Last summer I planted a single hill from some seeds I'd saved from a supermarket squash. Then I forgot all about that hill, moved some of my beds around, and rearranged my watering system. Somehow the spaghetti squash got left out in the cold, metaphorically. More literally, it got left in a spot that I completely forgot to water and often tromped across, dragged a hose over, and snapped of bits of vine.

Still, I ended up with dozens of squash. Dozens and dozens. I gave some away. We ate a few. And I filled a huge basket with about twenty of them back in July. We're down to four, after eating two of them last night as a main course, with garlic, butter, and parmesan. Which brings me to what I consider the primary virtue of spaghetti squash. Because they store forever, without canning or freezing, you can have fresh summer squash in February. That's right -- fresh, not frozen or canned, summer squash. Not winter squash.

It wasn't until I realized this that I started to really, really love spaghetti squash. You see, this squash had been sold to me under false pretenses. It was supposed to be like spaghetti. In fact, except that you can shred it with a fork and make something vaguely spaghetti shaped, there is no similarity.

Which is why I am announcing to all spaghetti squash everywhere that the jig is up. You are not spaghetti. You are squash. Stop pretending. Be proud of your vegetable nature. You are delicious, just like you are.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New Well

After a long, full day of helping supervise the guys who are drilling our new well, dogs are tuckered out.

Some stats:

The well is 185 feet deep.
The diggers tell me they hit top soil, white limestone, gray limestone, slate, and red clay, in that order.
It took about 4 hours to complete the digging.

I would have posted pics of the well, but there's nothing much to see. Just a capped off pipe sticking out if the ground. And the dogs are so much cuter.

The main thing, in my mind, about the new well is that it means we can garden again, on a large scale AND we can be more waterwise. Before, when we were on the community well, it was really hard to attach meters, for reasons I won't get into. So the first thing I'm going to do is investigate water metering systems and devices for measuring moisture in the soil.

Black Bean Chocolate Cake, Part II: A Warning

I've been making this cake for a good while now. I've made it for Widget Man and for company. I've taken it for a pot luck. I served it at a writing workshop once and people who had just met were licking their plates. In front of each other.

You'd think I'd have the recipe pretty much down by now.

You'd think.

But here's what happened. My eighty year old dad has been living with us for a little bit and he needs a fair amount of care. And I've been a fair amount of tired. But I wanted some cake! I mentioned making a cake to Widget Man and he wanted some too. So in a fit of greed and laziness, I used canned beans to make the cake. This was not my first fit of greed or laziness, and not the first time I've used canned beans for this cake either.

But this time, something went very, very wrong. So wrong that Widget Man took one bite of the cake, put his fork down, and looked at me with a very carefully neutral expression on his face. Then I took one bite and gagged. Then he felt free to make really loud gagging noises and bulge his eyes in a dramatic fashion. And I thought that was quite enough, thank you very much. No need to be rude.

The cake tasted, not to put too fine a point on it, like a big plate of crazy. I mean, not just bad, but crazy. Crazy because it was a moist, rich, chocolate cake, with icing and pecans, infused with the most intense flavor of bacon. Wait, not bacon: overwhelmingly powerful, fake bacon flavoring.

So I blame the canned beans, although the only thing on the label that looked suspicious was the word "spices." And let me reiterate that I've used canned beans before and the cake came out fine. Delicious, even.

And just in you want to use canned beans in your cake, I should tell you I've used Progresso brand beans with complete success in the past. I hate to name names but I will, for the sake of those who might want to avoid the shrieks of grief that accompany throwing an entire chocolate cake in the compost bin.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Window Farms

Most of my adult life has been spent gardening in very small spaces -- a tiny urban yard, a deck, a porch, a windowsill or two. Only recently have I had the luxury of gardening on several acres. And I still feel a great fondness for tiny gardens. They're smart; they're what most people can manage; they make peak oil sense; they can be really stinking cute.

So when I came across Window Farms I spent hours browsing through the site. Window Farms is a non-profit based in New York City helping folks grow food in really innovative ways. Do check it out.

By the way, my own little low tech window farm is shown here: some tomato starts.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Our Brothers and Sisters in Haiti

Here is a list of NGO's responding to the crisis in Haiti. A really good place to start if you're wondering where to send money.